The air force carried out a targeted assassination of two senior Hamas terrorists and a mid-ranking operative in the Gaza Strip overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, marking a significant blow to the leadership of the terrorist group’s military wing, Izzadin Kassam.
The targets played critical roles in organizing Hamas’s war effort from southern Gaza, and were also behind the 2006 kidnapping of soldier Gilad Schalit.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon released a statement saying the senior Hamas terrorists killed in the strike were behind a string of severe terror attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, as well as the kidnapping of Schalit.
He described the attack as “a very big intelligence and operational achievement for the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), who are working day and night for the security of the Israeli people.”
Ya’alon vowed Israel would continue “to pursue and strike the heads of Hamas anywhere and everywhere they will be.” Those who try to harm civilians are fair targets, he stated.
“The heads of Hamas will know that we will not rest until we place our hands on them.”
Following the strike, the South was hit heavily by rockets and mortars on Thursday, with 180 projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip on the 45th day of Operation Protective Edge.
Rockets targeted Ashkelon and Ashdod at press time. At least 130 projectiles landed in open areas, six struck in built up areas, and Iron Dome intercepted 24 rockets over southern cities.
The IAF continued to hit targets in Gaza, striking some 60 targets in the Strip over the course of Thursday, and killing 10 terrorists.
Targets included apartments used to oversee rocket attacks and underground rocket launchers.
Twenty-three of the targets were struck after being detected in real time by a range of electronic sensors and intelligence gathering capabilities.
Guided by information obtained by the Shin Bet, the air force fired missiles at a building overnight between Wednesday and Thursday in Rafah that housed Raed Atar and Muhammad Abu Shamalah, killing them both, security forces said.
A third Hamas terrorist, Muhammad Barhoum, described by security sources as an abettor to the senior Hamas members, was also killed in the strike.
“This strike represents a very significant intelligence achievement, and an intelligence infiltration,” a security source told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Senior air force sources said the strike was adjusted to suit the intelligence that came from the Shin Bet, and was designed to ensure that the targets would not escape alive, while minimizing the chances of collateral damage to neighboring buildings.
The attack came after the Shin Bet received intelligence on the location of the terrorists, security forces added, describing the targets as men who were senior and central members of Hamas’s military wing.
Abu Shamalah, 39, was the most senior Hamas leader in southern Gaza, and was dubbed as “Hamas’s southern commander” by the Shin Bet. He was responsible for operations in all of Rafah and Khan Yunis. The Shin Bet said he commanded over all combat in his sector, and was a long-time member of Hamas’s core leadership in Izzadin Kassam.
He began terrorist activities in the early 1990s with Hamas military-wing chief Muhammad Deif, and was directly involved in carrying out and orchestrating dozens of attacks on Israel, including the murder of an IDF officer in Rafah in 1994, an attack that killed six soldiers with bomb-laden tunnels in 2004, and orchestrating a bombing of the Kerem Shalom border crossing in 2008, in which booby trapped jeeps were used. Thirteen soldiers were injured in that attack.
Abu Shamalah was one of the main planners of the Kerem Shalom tunnel attack in 2006, in which two soldiers were killed and Gilad Schalit was abducted.
During the current operation, he was responsible for overseeing the infiltration of 13 terrorists via a tunnel in the Kibbutz Sufa area.
Raed Atar, 39, was a Hamas brigade commander in southern Gaza and a senior member of the military wing. The Shin Bet said he was an architect of the Hamas offensive tunnel network in southern Gaza.
He served as a commander of Hamas operations in his sector, and headed attacks on the Kerem Shalom and Sufa regions.
Atar took part in a long line of deadly attacks on soldiers over the past 20 years, including an attack in July 2004 on the Israel-Egypt border that killed an officer; planning and carrying out a plot to bomb an army post that killed four soldiers; and taking part and planning an infiltration of an IDF post near Kerem Shalom, which killed four soldiers.
“Since then, he was involved in commanding and orchestrating many bombings,” the Shin Bet said.
“Atar headed the Rafah Brigade, which killed and kidnapped the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin, and was involved in additional incidents in which IDF soldiers were harmed during Operation Protective Edge,” the intelligence agency said.
Barhoum, 45, dealt in arms smuggling on behalf of Hamas’s Rafah Brigade. In the past, he took part in raising terrorist finances and spent years in Syria.
Hamas said in a statement that “the assassination policy has failed to weaken [our] resistance.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinians marched at the funeral of the three Hamas commanders on Thursday, firing weapons into the air in anger and calling for revenge.
“The assassinations of the three Kassam leaders is a grave crime,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. “But it will not break our people and Israel will pay the price for it.”
Palestinian health officials said 29 Palestinians, including four children, the Hamas commanders and at least two other insurgents, were killed in air strikes on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the IDF has called up 10,000 reservists, who will replace other reserve forces that are being sent home for rest.
A total of 86,000 reserve soldiers have been called up since the beginning of the conflict this summer, and many of them replaced conscripted ground forces in the West Bank, who were rotated to the Gaza border. Some reserve units have also taken up positions around Gaza.
Targets struck by the IAF throughout Thursday include an Islamic Jihad operative in southern Gaza who fired projectiles at Israel, and several terrorists in northern Gaza who fired from a cemetery at Israel.
Two Islamic Jihad operatives were killed in southern Gaza.
Terrorists in Gaza fired a 107 mm. rocket at the Kerem Shalom crossing for goods, the Defense Ministry said. The attack came despite the fact the crossing is used by Israel to send hundreds of trucks of humanitarian goods and fuel per day.
Since the beginning of the war, more than 5,000 trucks carrying tens of thousands of tons of humanitarian goods, including medical equipment, food, fuel, gas and other goods have crossed via Kerem Shalom into Gaza.
Gazan terrorists fired some 330 rockets at Israel since the violation of the truce on Tuesday. There were 250 that landed in open areas, 14 in built-up areas, and 47 were shot down by Iron Dome. The air force has killed 18 terrorists since Tuesday, the army said.
For the most part, Thursday’s rockets were confined to the South and the areas around the Gaza border, though Thursday night there were rocket sirens reported in the West Bank and in the area of Modi’in as well.
Reuters contributed to this report.